Arnold Kling  

What I've Been Reading

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In order of satisfaction:

1. Empire of Liberty,by Gordon Wood
2. The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi
3. Masters and Commanders, by Andrew Roberts
4. Startup Nation, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer

Wood is giving us the history of the United States from 1787-1812, a drama in which the parts of Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke were played by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and the part of Sarah Palin was played by Thomas Jefferson. Or something like that.

Polanyi is required reading in my daughter's sociology grad school theory class. In spite of positioning himself directly against classical liberal economists, he is right on many things, particularly the focus of humans on status and the impact of economic instability on status. But he is wrong to make it seem as though the alternative to markets is something communitarian. The alternative instead is something like what North, Weingast, and Wallis call "the natural state," ruled by warlords. As you know, I am sympathetic to Polanyi's view that a market economy as we think of it is a very modern development, and as you know, there is much evidence that is viewed as contrary to my view. Let us wait for Matt Ridley's book to come out next year--he will have the definite assault on Polanyi and Kling.

Roberts is writing about the Anglo-American strategic co-operation during World War II. The main conflict was over whether to strike at France early or instead to go for North Africa and then Italy, with the British successfully steering policy toward the latter. Even though Roberts writes primarily from the point of view of Alan Brooke, the British chief of staff, my guess is that the Americans were right.

The way I look at it, the challenge boils down to how to make decisive use of aircraft. In late 1942 it would have been pretty easy to come ashore in France, and then everything would have depended on tactical air power. I would much rather have B-17's in 1942 and 1943 going after German troop trains and tank formations in France than engaging in the "strategic" bombing of Germany.

I am skimming the book, because the contextual details that Roberts insist on tossing in (what Churchill is wearing, random anecdotes) are neither entertaining nor illuminating.

Owning a copy of Startup Nation is a way to signal pro-Israel sympathies. But it's a classic case of a magazine article that did not deserve to be padded into a book.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
fundamentalist writes:

"...a market economy as we think of it is a very modern development..."

I can't understand how any historian worth his salt cannot see that. Maybe they can't see the bigger picture for focusing on the details. But something important changed around 1600. Before then, all nations in the world has similar standards of living and technology. And those standards of living had changed little over the previous 4,000 years. Suddenly, Western Europe broke out and exploded in wealth, leaving the rest of the world far behind. The most important job that historians have to do is to explain that sudden, dramatic divergence and rapid wealth creation in the West. If they can't see that markets changed at that time, I don't know how to help them. They must have poked themselves in the eyes to avoid seeing the obvious.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

My (big Churchill fanboy) received opinion is that a cross-channel invasion a year early would have been heavily constrained by lack of landing craft, mulberry harbors and other materiel. The u-boat war (Battle of the Atlantic) was still in full swing, and though the Russians had fought the Eastern front to a standstill, the Germans were still immensely strong and mobile. Churchill worried that a failed attempt would cost years to recover.

It is easier to criticize the cross-channel delay from the perspective of the lack of results from the Mediterranean strategy (other than to help Britain reduce the threats to its empire communications). It may have been militarily better to do nothing - but this was probably unacceptable politically.

fundamentalist writes:

When asked his opinion of the D-Day invasion, MacArthur said he would court martial the SOB who planned it.

Andrew writes:

As someone pointed out on Tom Ricks' blog, the American Army was a much different animal in 1942 -- inexperienced, untested and unsure. Look at the mistakes made in North Africa and Italy, then multiply them by a much bigger gamble. And if a Channel invasion had failed in 1942?? By 1944 Germany was getting pushed back from the south and ground up to the east and it still wasn't a cakewalk.

Vasco writes:

Your daughter is a sociology grad student? I don't think there could be a greater betrayal for an economist father. :P

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